When I was growing up, my family had a small cabin in southern Arkansas.
We had to handle a few things that I don’t miss in Colorado, such as the size of the bugs, the heat and cottonmouth snakes, but I still loved my time spent outside at my grandparents place.
Mostly, I wandered and got to know the trees. In fact, my sister, cousins and I each picked our own tree to go to for solitude. We kept going back to that same tree every year into our teens.
The pine trees in Arkansas were pungent because of the sunshine beating down on the oozing sap. To this day, whenever I smell the first scent of pine trees in the summer, I am immediately transported back to that time and place.
Of all the senses, the sense of smell is the one that evokes memories. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain.” Therefore, smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.
Despite the wiring in the brain, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory. Because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up childhood memories.
As summer is about to begin, I am thinking of the memories that we are creating for the kids in Durango. When I go to the Nature Center, the smell of piñon, cedar and juniper is overpowering in the morning light. These are the smells that our students encounter as they hike down the trail into the center.
Kids who sign up for our summer camp come back year after year. Because I have a seventh-grade son, I can attest to the fact that the Nature Center is a major part of his childhood lexicon of memories. Each year, despite his other teenage interests, he asks to go out to the Nature Center regularly.
To him, it just means summer. I hope that as he grows to adulthood, every time he catches a whiff of juniper or cedar, he will go back in his mind to the lazy summers spent there along the Florida River making forts, playing in the meadow, catching crawdads and river tromping.
Durango Nature Studies’ summer camps, day programs and middle school camps are open for registration, but filling up. I love seeing kids who have been going since kindergarten, because it shows that they think of the Nature Center when they think of summer, too.
That’s what Durango Nature Studies is really all about – creating memories and experiences that inspire a personal connection with the natural world, and, in turn, creating better environmental citizens for our future.
Even if your kids are not participating in our summer programs, all kindergarten through eighth-graders in the Durango school district have standards-based environmental education programs at the Nature Center every year.
That’s nine years of learning experiences at the Nature Center. So, come with them on a Saturday, so they can show you what they’ve learned, bring your grandkids or participate in a workshop.
Create lasting memories and a sense of place for your kids that will come back with the faintest hint of juniper.
[email protected] or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.